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Chronic narrowing of airways

Asthma is a chronic lung condition in which your airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. Breathing can be difficult and may trigger episodes of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. For some people with asthma, it’s just a minor nuisance, but for others it may interfere with everyday activities and could lead to a life-threatening attack.

Asthma symptoms can be triggered by many things including physical activity or allergies. In some people, asthma is only triggered when they exercise, a condition that is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or exercise-induced asthma.

There is no cure for asthma, but it can be controlled. Taking an active role in managing your disease by building a strong partnership with your physician and other healthcare providers can help you live a normal, active life.

Causes of asthma

Researchers haven’t been able to identify any exact causes of asthma, but they believe that genetic and environmental factors combine to cause the disease. Asthma most often occurs early in life. Factors in developing asthma include:

  • A genetic tendency to develop allergies
  • Parents who have asthma
  • Certain respiratory infections during childhood
  • Contact with some airborne allergens or exposure to some viral infections during infancy or in early childhood when the immune system is developing

In addition to the factors above that may lead to the development of asthma, there are a number of things that can trigger an asthma attack. These include:

  • Airborne allergens such as pollen, animal dander, molds and dust mites
  • Respiratory infections
  • Physical activity
  • Cold air
  • Air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke
  • Some medications, including beta blockers, aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen
  • Strong emotions and stress
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition in which stomach acids back up into your throat
  • In some women, menstrual cycles

Symptoms of asthma

Symptoms of asthma vary from person to person and can range from minor to severe. Some people have infrequent attacks while others experience symptoms all the time. Signs and symptoms of asthma include:

  • Wheezing, which is one of the most common signs of asthma, especially in children
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing

Other signs may indicate that your asthma is getting worse. These include:

  • Worsening or increased frequency of any of the above signs and symptoms
  • Increasing difficulty breathing
  • The need to use a fast-acting inhaler more often

Work with your doctor to determine a plan of action if you find yourself having a serious asthma attack. If any of your symptoms worsen or change, contact your doctor. Don’t wait if you believe you are having an asthma emergency. Signs of an asthma emergency include: a rapid worsening of shortness of breath or wheezing, no improvement after using a quick-relief inhaler, or shortness of breath when you are doing minimal physical activity.

Treatments for asthma

Because asthma is a chronic disease with no cure, treatment of the disease is necessary to control symptoms. It is important that you work closely with your physician to find the treatments that work best for you to control the disease. A plan to control your asthma will likely include medications and behavior modifications if necessary. It should also include information such as when to take medications and a list of triggers and steps you can take to avoid them.

Some medications used to treat asthma include:

Long-term medications that can control your asthma on a day-to-day basis and make it less likely that you will have an asthma attack. These medications include:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids, which are anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Leukotriene modifiers, oral medications that can help relieve symptoms for up to 24 hours
  • Long-acting beta agonists, which open the airways
  • Combination inhalers, which combine a long-acting beta agonist with a corticosteroid

Quick-relief medications that are used for short-term relief during an asthma attack. These include:

  • Short-acting beta agonists, which act within minutes to ease the symptoms of an asthma attack
  • Oral and intravenous corticosteroids, which relieve airway inflammation are used only on a short-term basis because of their side effects

Allergy medications may help some people whose asthma may be triggered or worsened by allergens. These include:

  • Allergy shots
  • Allergy medications, including oral and nasal spray antihistamines and decongestants, as well as corticosteroid and cromolyn nasal sprays